The newspaper's front page contained one of those jigsaws of
incongruity that one comes to expect these days in California.
One article reported that the California Independent System
Operator had just declared the latest in a long series of Stage
Two electricity shortages, while another reported on workers
merrily dismantling the Rancho Seco nuclear electricity
generating plant near Sacramento.
Those two stories form the bookends of this state's energy
crisis. We need 15,000 megawatts of additional generating
capacity to meet immediate demand, produce a sufficient surplus
to force prices down, and to accommodate unexpected breakdowns
of the state's aging fleet of generators. And we can't get there
without a major commitment to nuclear energy.
California has only two nuclear power plants left from the
era when California's leaders were committed to cheap, clean and
abundant electricity. Those two plants alone still produce 16
percent of the state's electricity at the cost of roughly
3-cents per kilowatt hour - a fraction of the 16-cents it now
costs to produce the same electricity with a natural gas-fired
The state of Vermont gets 70 percent of its electricity from
nuclear power. France gets 76 percent. And yet, under current
law, a nuclear power plant application cannot even be considered
in California. How are we to meet the demands for cheap, clean
and abundant electricity without it?
California has overrun its natural gas supply, natural gas
prices have skyrocketed and air regulators routinely require
large plants to pay as much as $4.8 million per day for air
pollution permits. And yet, gas fired plants are the only
applications currently being considered. "Renewables"
like solar power are often
touted as the energy supply of the future, but their power is
neither cheap nor abundant. To replace the daily output of the
Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant with photovoltaic cells, for
example, would cost $66 billion (the price of 22 similar-sized
nuclear plants today) and require 36 square miles of solid solar
Coal is cheap - about the same cost as nuclear power per
kilowatt-hour - but is the dirtiest form of energy available. If
clean, cheap and abundant power is the question, the only
readily available answers are hydroelectric and nuclear.
Four thousand megawatts of hydroelectric power could be made
available in the next five years by completing the Auburn Dam,
increasing the capacity of the Shasta Dam and upgrading a
variety of existing facilities. But hydroelectricity becomes
unreliable in droughts, and still doesn't bring us close to the
15,000 megawatts that California needs.
Which brings us back to the merry vandals at Rancho Seco, and
ultimately to the ideological opposition that has blocked
nuclear power development in California for 25 years.
During that period, nuclear technology has taken quantum
leaps that have dramatically decreased costs and increased
safety and reliability. The arguments of nuclear opponents have
simply been eclipsed by a quarter century of solid technological
Today, nuclear power can boast the safest operating record of
any competitive power source in the history of the world. Modern
nuclear plants operate for less than 2-cents per kilowatt-hour;
3-cents when construction and decommissioning costs are factored
in. At that rate, the average home electricity bill would be $18
Nuclear power completely eliminates the chronic air pollution
associated with electricity generation. In 1999, California's
two nuclear plants prevented the release of 181,000 tons of
sulfur dioxide and 7.7 million metric tons of carbon
particulates that would have been produced by fossil fuel
plants. And with production reactors in use around the world,
the fuel is inexhaustible.
Nuclear plants create a fraction of the waste of conventional
power plants. An ideal waste depository exists at Yucca
Mountain, Nevada and recycling of nuclear waste - a common
practice around the world but not in the United States - would
reduce that fraction to a fraction.
California's public officials will hear none of this, of
course. After all, sky-high prices for electricity, ubiquitous
power blackouts, dirty air, and yet another exodus of business
away from California are a small price for them to pay to avoid
the wrath of California's anti-nuclear zealots. But is it a
price the rest of us should pay?
Senator McClintock represents the 19th
State Senate District in the California Legislature. His website
address is www.sen.ca.gov/mcclintock.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Environmental Case for Nuclear Power: Economic, Medical, and
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